As a pioneer in both the music and medical fields, CarbonWorks’ Neal Barnard has long since inspired many of those he has met over the years, encouraging them to explore this place we call home and issues within it more deeply. The bands’ self-titled debut album released in December, contains elements of blues, rock and jazz – and, today, Thisisthelatest are delighted to premiere the video for the new single “By The Window” which you can check out at the bottom of this feature. To coincide with the premiere, Barnard took time out of his increasingly busy schedule to chat favourite artists, his thoughts on animal testing and his lasting message to the world.
TITL: What would you say sets your band CarbonWorks apart from your various musical counterparts?
Neal Barnard: We seem to have gone off in our own direction, with music that changes from song to song like a movie soundtrack, so it’s hard to compare us to other groups. But the elements people pick up on are the beautiful vocals, foreign languages, and odd time signatures. A couple of people have said that our song “Samurai” reminds them of punk or New Wave bands – a bit of Blondie or Talking Heads – and one or two have compared us to The Silk Road by Yoyo Ma with all the international flavors.
TITL: Has music always been your chosen career path and if not, which other routes/professions did you consider?
NB: My parents had the idea that a civilized person ought to play at least two instruments. So I was basically chained to the piano and cello starting at age six. And I would love to do music 24/7. However, there are social causes – unhealthful diets and cruelty to animals, in particular – that led me to go to medical school and to found the Physician Committee for Responsible Medicine. So that’s been squeezing my musical career a bit, forcing me to write books about asparagus instead of banging on my Les Paul.
TITL: Which artists and bands most influenced you growing up and how, if at all, do they impact the music you make?
NB: When I was little, the Beatles and “the British Invasion” turned my world from black and white to color. Then Cream, Jimi Hendrix, and Stevie Ray Vaughn made me love the guitar. The Incredible String Band and others introduced the idea of out-of-the-box, who-cares-what-anybody-thinks song-writing. And then I bought a French record in a bargain bin, and that led me down the rabbit hole of French music, which I adore. And because I lived I a Vietnamese neighborhood in medical school, I fell in love with traditional Vietnamese music. So now all those elements go into the mental blender.
TITL: How did you come up with the concept for the video to your new single “By The Window” and is the Vietnam War, footage of which features within it, something particular close to you/members of your family?
“By the Window” is a traditional Vietnamese song about a woman who is wondering where her man has gone. The words say, in essence, half of my blanket and half of my bed are waiting for you to come back. The original is very pretty and sad. So I translated it into a kick-ass rocker. That’s not such a leap as it may sound, because Vietnamese music uses a pentatonic scale—the same as is used in blues and rock. Phi Khanh and Chau Nguyen were so perfect in this song, and our singer Martha and the group really rocked it, too.
About the war theme, every night in my childhood the news recounted the latest casualties in Vietnam. Close to 60,000 U.S. soldiers were killed and more than ten times that many Vietnamese soldiers and civilians. When I was 18, I was about to be sent to the army, but fate intervened and sent me in a different direction. Phi Khanh and Chau Nguyen, who play on this song, both had to flee Vietnam. And the video tells of the war and of those forced to leave.
But Vietnam is also a beautiful place, with dense green forests and obvious beauty in its music, food, and clothing that stand in contrast to the cruelty and tragedies that we may remember.
My previous album, Verdun, included quite a lot of Vietnamese influences, and it was reassuring when, in 2009, one of our songs, called “Dream of the Black Horse” was selected for a performance on the National Mall in Washington for the conclusion of the Library of Congress’ observances that were a memorial to the suffering of the Vietnamese refugees at the end of the war.
TITL: Your self-titled debut album came out in December. For those who have yet to hear it, how would you sum it up and do you have a favourite track?
NB: In some ways, the CarbonWorks album is a natural extension of my prior albums, Verdun and Pop Maru, which were filled with foreign elements and the occasional bit of experimentation, too. But Naif – our wonderful Italian singer – really summed it up when she said it’s a voyage. The music drifts from blues, into classical and jazz and rock, with Italian and Vietnamese elements and lots of other things that all fit together – at least I hope they do.
I can’t say I have a favourite track. The song most people seem to really grab hold of is “Louder than Words,” which is really Martha and Allegra, our violinist, playing so beautifully together. Although I was not trying to write a hit song, it has been on the U.S. Top 40 for several weeks now -#14 on the Adult Contemporary chart this week. And “Samurai” is really fun. The vocal on “Song for an Angel” is out of this world, and the same for “God Save the King.” And if you are on some highway late at night, I am hoping that the 15-minute “End of the World” Suite will carry you along.
TITL: Who or what most inspires you lyrically and with that in mind, which song would you say is the greatest ever written and why?
NB: Lyrics need to be simple and emotional – not logical – and need to bring visual images to mind. So, for example, Leonard Cohen’s “Bird on a Wire” conveys simple images of – as the lyrics say – a bird on a wire or a drunk in a midnight choir. You can picture these assertive but pathetic images of something that passes for freedom.
TITL: Do you have any upcoming performance plans you can tell me about?
NB: I wish. Our musicians are scattered so widely, I think the only place we’ll ever be together is on celluloid, or whatever the digital equivalent is.
TITL: If you could play any venue in the world with three bands or artists who would they be, why and where would you play?
NB: Is there where I’m supposed to say I want to play with Nelson Mandela, the Dalai Lama, and the Pope? Wow, that’s a great question. If I could play any venue, it would be the U.S. House of Representatives, just so all the politicians and lobbyists would put down their credit cards for a moment and listen to something sensible. And once we had that down, I wouldn’t mind a short gig in the middle of the Prime Minister’s Question Time.
TITL: To what extent, if at all, have you found social media a positive/negative tool when it comes to getting the word about your music out there to the masses?
NB: I love it. It allows people to reach across the globe instantly. Often, they give us a lot more than they should. But I love the fact that they can.
TITL: Away from music, you’re regarded as a trailblazer and pioneer in the medical field, notably through removing animal testing from medical schools and medical experimentation in general. How do your views on issues such as animal testing and veganism influence/impact the creative side of your life?
NB: All these things interfere with the creative side of life – which is to say that, because people eat so badly – Americans eat more than a million animals every hour—we are left with a huge disease burden that has to be addressed, plus massive cruelty to animals in laboratories aiming to find cures for the illnesses that are, to a great extent, caused by our carnivorous habits. So with all that work to do, creative pursuits have to wait.
TITL: How did/have your appearances on Dr. Oz impacted your career and your ability to get your name out to a wider audience?
NB: Dr. Oz is a good friend. A few years back, he devoted an entire show to vegan diets and has had me on the program a dozen times or more. Since he’s the biggest show on American daytime TV, it does mean that you get stopped in airports quite often by people wanting advice.
TITL: What else does this year have in store for you? Are there any as-yet-unannounced projects in the pipeline?
NB: Yes, I’m in the studio now recording some new music. I really love it so far, but it takes time to see what really endures. One of the most important things in any creative process is to release only your very best work, which means letting a lot of good, but not great, things go.
On the non-music side, I have a new book, called The Cheese Trap, which lays out the biochemical reasons why we get hooked on cheddar and mozzarella and the surprising benefits of breaking that love affair. And we are now working on cleaning up the food in hospitals and schools – out with the bacon and sausage, in with the vegetables and fruits. And we have some really exciting research initiatives that help refocus research on human biology.
TITL: Finally then, looking to the long-distant future, what would you like your legacy, both in and outside of music, to be? What one message would you like to leave the world as a lasting reminder of the impact you made and beliefs you had?
NB: I do think we’ve accomplished a lot, from ending the use of animals in North American medical schools, working with a coalition to stop chimpanzee experiments, persuading the US Government to dump the “meat group” from its dietary policies, dramatically changing the nutritional treatment of diabetes, and shining a new spotlight on means of preventing Alzheimer’s disease, among others, but there is a lot more to do, needless to say.
Musically, I hope that the person who feels he or she is trudging through a musical wasteland will have found something new and interesting in our music. And I also hope that it will lead them to know more about our musicians. Naif Hérin and Chris Thomas King, for example, have very prominent careers – Naif in Italy and Chris in movies – like the Coen Brothers’ O Brother Where Art Thou? – and I hope listeners will dig into their work, too.
On a bigger scale, my ultimate hope is that people can learn to behave themselves, which is to say leaving animals off their plates and work to ensure health and dignity for our fellow humans. If our work has advanced those causes, then it has been worthwhile. But there is no shortage of challenges remaining in front of us! And we have music with us to motivate us, console us, and speak for us when words are hard to find.
Watch the video for “By The Window” below and for more information on CarbonWorks, visit their website, give their page a like on Facebook or follow them on Twitter. Their self-titled album can be purchased here.